Friday, May 6, 2011

Standing Up For Science

Last Tuesday, Sense about Science hosted a great discussion about the interactions between scientists and journalists.  Here are 10 tips for young scientists, based on the panel's wisdom.

Leonor Sierra, Sense About Science
Karen Weintraub, freelance health and science journalist
Dr Chris Reddy, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
Morgan Thompson, Science in the News
B.D. Colen, Senior Communications Officer for University Science, Harvard University

1. Learn why the public should care about your research.  If you work in cosmology, you might be able to say something like we’re made of star stuff, and get away with it, as Carl Sagan did.  But usually non-scientists are more interested in the practical applications of your work than in the gee-whiz factor.  If your research contributes to knowledge about cancer, or climate change, or why we should all switch to a 30-hour work week, tell people that before you get into the nitty-gritty of your experiments.  They’ll be more excited about your individual role once they know the big picture.  Develop a 100-word summary of your research and why it’s important.  Also, when you’re talking to journalists, talk a bit about your interests outside of your work.  Getting to know you as a person helps the writer tell a better story and helps the reader see you as a real person. 

2. Remind yourself that the public pays for the majority of scientific research.  Money from the NSF or the NIH is money from taxpayers.  If you’re going to spend it, you have some obligation to help people understand what you’re doing with it.

3. Recognize that you’re bilingual. Specialists—in science, education, law, whatever—speak their own language.  Your jargon is useful, but other people don’t know it.  Try writing a page-long summary of something interesting you’ve learned about your field in the past year without using any scientific language.  When you can’t say DNA, or tumor, or even cancer, you’ll have to get creative with those common English words.  It’s hard, and the results aren’t always superb, but it’s a great exercise.

4. Take a class in writing, communication, or even theatre.  Improvisational acting can help you learn to be comfortable and confident when you’re talking to reporters or the public.  As with any skill, you’ll get better with practice.

5. Pretend you’re tweeting. Here’s another exercise the panel suggested: write a two-sentence summary of what you do that’s accurate to you and understandable to lay people.

6. Accept that not every story will be as accurate and detailed as you want it to be.  In science, accuracy is everything.  Nobody cares if an academic paper is boring, as long as it’s right.  Academic journals have a focused, captive audience.  Newspapers don’t.  If a science article is boring, the reader goes straight to the celebrity gossip section.  Sometimes, the details that matter so much to a scientist are totally lost on the public.  At least they get an idea of your work.

7. Correct errors gently.  Even if a newspaper article has different standards than an academic paper, journalists strive for accuracy.  Sometimes they make mistakes.  When you see a mistake, definitely call it to the reporter’s attention.  Explain how much you enjoyed their article except for this one tiny thing… If you can help them get the facts straight, you’ll help prevent future errors.

8. Befriend a reporter Some of the journalists on the panel had a scientist mentor.  If you make yourself available to a reporter, she’ll bounce ideas off you, and use you to double-check facts.  Even if you never get featured in The New York Times as a result, you’ll make a huge impact. 

9. Become a teacher or volunteer. There are organizations (like Science in the News) that give grad students great opportunities to work with the public while learning important skills like teaching and public speaking.

10. Try your own hand at writing! Skip the reporter and go straight to the presses.  Blogs are free at sites like Blogspot and Wordpress, and you’ve already got a wonderful niche to write about, so if you’re at all inclined, give it a try! 

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